A most auspicious narrative debut for writer-director-star Davidson Cole, “Design” invests a potentially sordid tale of intersecting Chicago lives with character-based ambiguity and arresting cinematic style. Roughly comparable to the David Lynch of “Blue Velvet,” albeit with a more downtrodden working-class focus and less surreal-baroque palette, drama can stand on its own as an original black comedy with poignant, even tragic elements. Further fest exposure is assured, and prospects for arthouse distrib are strong.
Photog Nicholas’ (Edward Cunningham) soon-to-be ex-g.f. (Kipleigh Brown) confronts him with photos she’s found in his apartment — snaps catching hundreds of people, mostly women and sometimes nude, unaware. Grilled, he can’t even identify most. It’s enough for the g.f., who leaves.
Nicholas is indeed a chillingly odd bird, more at ease spying on strangers than engaging in real interactions. His creepiness comes through again at a wedding photo shoot, where he molests the drunk, passed-out bride in a dark room mid-reception. Discovered, he’s chased off by the enraged groom and latter’s thuggish pals, who continue to dog him throughout “Design.”
But Nicholas is just the first among several initially unrelated, slowly intertwined figures who share pic’s narrative emphasis. Nominal hero is Seamus (Cole), a 30ish man who’s affable enough yet seems a magnet for bad luck. His joyless night-shift job at a warehouse invites constant harassment from a cruel supervisor. His live-in g.f. Kate (Mary Kay Cook) is a babe, yet her thirst for perverse sex games often leaves Seamus feeling overmatched.
Third major strand is ex-schoolteacher Peter (Daniel J. Travanti) and 18-year-old daughter Sonya (Jennifer Morrison). Peter has been hopelessly, alcoholically despondent since his wife of 26 years ran off with a community college art instructor, and spends days at a humiliating door-to-door sales job, and nights drinking to the point of blackout. Sonya sticks around as caregiver, putting her own young-adult life on hold.
These characters paths cross in unpredictable ways. Fascinated by strangers’ emotions — especially their deepest pain — Nicholas befriends first Peter, then Seamus in a dank local bar. Latter’s carnal game playing with Kate goes disastrously awry just when he’s already hit a jobless low. Peter’s enmity toward his marital usurper boils over at a dangerously booze-addled moment.
Pic’s pervasive air of imminent violence finally erupts in domino-like fashion during final reel. But even here, Cole’s fascinatingly complex screenplay and bold direction transcend noirish-thriller conventions. Title, drawn from a Robert Frost poem, alludes to the notion of a grand “design” that manipulates individuals’ fates — often to dark or destructive ends — beyond their control. And “Design” really does create a unique, self-contained universe where banal circumstances come to seem pre-ordained, all strings pulled by a grimly amused, merciless force.
Cole’s slowly paced scenes and terse dialogue have an intimacy that’s eerie rather than mannered, and his actors deliver the goods. Best known thesp here, Travanti, is terrific as Peter in a crumbling-Everyman part worthy of Arthur Miller. Cunningham walks a knife’s-edge between misfit sympathy and menace as Nicholas. Cole himself — belying any fear of multi-hyphenate self-indulgence — is understatedly fine as Seamus, whose story arc is most extreme and bewildering.
There’s a striking spareness to the overall package, allowing even split-screen effects, a dryly satirical frame-within-frame “wedding video” (preceding Nicholas’ reception fiasco), and other design tropes to work unerringly well.
Shooting in Super-16mm reversal stock transferred to high-def vid (a 35mm transfer is forthcoming), lenser Pete Biagi favors discomfiting tight close-ups and detached, voyeuristic long shots that abet the hyper-real atmosphere. Editor Neal Gold’s deliberate (but never ponderous) pace renders the final explosion of fragmentary, perhaps part-delusional images all the more startling.
Seldom-recognizable Chicago locations have an anonymous, forlorn quality; Leif Olsen’s score is most notable for its long absences, as pregnant silence and ambient sound are used to unsettling effect.